This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and with this particular holiday comes a barrage of unresolved feelings of grief and loss for many adoptees. I wrote about this last year in a piece titled Remembering without Memories. Within the adoption community, a debate I commonly see arise among adoptive parents is the issue of what exactly to call their children’s biological parents. I believe the names we give people are critical in shaping and framing the ways in which we view them. I have compiled the list below and ranked the titles that I have seen used recently related to mothers in hopes that this can be used when including both first mothers and adoptive mothers in conversations on this Mother’s Day.
- Mother / Other Mother:
- Sometimes it really is just as simple as that. I have always considered myself to have two mothers. In making it so that the adoptive mother gets to be labeled as just “mother” with no descriptors while the first mother always needs qualifiers in front of her title of mother devalues her role as a mother and always places her in the second position.
- First Mother:
- This is the term I prefer to use in conversations that need clarification. It is seemingly neutral and does not place value on the word mother other than a simple sequential order. To me, it is not akin to people referring to their first husband and then second husband – a first mother and an adoptive mother can and do exist simultaneously. The term simply means she is the first woman I called mother.
- Chinese Mother / (China Mommy):
- I think this is an appropriate term that places the mother geographically. This, of course, might be confusing if a child was adopted into an ethnically Chinese family, but this situation rarely happens. For most, this is a easy way to distinguish the two mothers, especially for younger children. This name pairs well with children’s books, like Star of the Week or When You were Born in China, which both emphasize the love of unknown family in China.
- Natural Mother:
- This term means that this person is the mother by nature, but implies that for some reason she is not raising her child. Some adoptive parents might object, suggesting that the opposite of natural is unnatural — but it is important to recognize that adoption is an unnatural event. Additionally, setting the words as opposites furthers an us v. them mentality, and for the best interest of the adoptee, two women with love for the same child shouldn’t be pitted against each other. Many mothers of loss to adoption in the United States have been vocal about embracing this term, especially over the agency sanctioned term, “birth mother,” and their wishes must be taken into account.
- Original Mother:
- This refers to the woman who was the first, the earliest, the mother from the beginning of the adoptee’s life. This term gives weight to the role beyond just biological or birthing aspects.
- Biological Mother:
- This term might be most clear if talking to a medical professional about genealogical history, but it doesn’t connote warmness that I think language about mothers should. I know some adoptees who remark that they only neutral feelings towards their first families and prefer this term because they like that the connection made here is purely biological. Personally, for me, this term feels too scientific to me and lacks any emotional expression.
- Birth Mother:
- This is the wordage I grew up using and that I believe is the most prevalent among the adoption community. The term was first used by author and adoptive mother Pearl S. Buck and later gained popularity by adoption professionals in the 1970’s. First mothers have expressed their distaste for this term because it implies that mothering stops with birth, yet for them they remain mothers forever. Some adoptive parents might rebuttal that this is the term their adopted children like to use, but my hunch is that is because this is the term that they’ve heard most and gotten comfortable with, and most children are resistant to change. Adoption agencies and adoptive parents have long had the loudest voices on adoption rhetoric, and it’s time that we respect the voices of adoptees and the mothers of loss to adoption.
- Tummy Mummy:
- The connotation of this term is that of an incubator and doesn’t even give the mother the honor of being a part of the birth experience or signify any emotional heart connection on her part – purely a physical one in the “tummy.” Furthermore, it is biologically incorrect, as babies develop in the woman’s uterus, not the stomach.
- “The Lady whose belly you came from”:
- In a conversational thread online, I came across a comment by a woman who said her family uses “the lady whose belly you came from” instead of a more commonly used expression as to not confuse their children. She continues, ” we simply refer to the lady who’s belly they came from and talk about how for some reason that we do not know she and the man decided they were not about to be a parent to a baby at that time and did what they felt was the best they could for them. They took them to the hospital/orphanage in hopes that some one would find them a forever mommy and daddy.” I find this incredibly problematic to not give the first mother the title of mother. I believe the adoptive mother, in this case, has severely underestimated the ability of her children to comprehend love and family. Children are not confused by having multiple aunts and uncles or multiple siblings or multiple step and half relations, so it should not be a bewildering concept for children to be able to hold two different types of mothers in their hearts.
- Stork Mother:
- With this name, the first mother is not even regarded as a human being with any biological ties. She is dehumanized and made a fantasy creature whose role is to deliver babies.
- Annette-Kassaye – Why I Stopped Using the Term “Birth Mother”
- Karen Pickell – My Adoptivemother and My Birth Mother
- Musings of the Lame; Adoption Truths Exposed – The Origin of the Word “Birthmother”
- Red Thread Broken – Post Mother’s Day Thoughts on my Real Mother
- Wikipedia – Language of Adoption
I am an adoptive mother of three girls, one of whom (12 years old) uses the term Real Mother. Yes, she and I both realize that I am also real, but this is the term she uses and I wonder why you chose not to use it in your list. My youngest (9) uses “my other mommy” and the oldest (14) says “birth mother”.
Hi, Sylvie. i am a mother through adoption and when my daughter was little, we talked about the fact that she had a mother and father in China who were unable to raise her, and she had us who would be with her as she grew up and beyond. She was sometimes asked who her “real” parents were. We assured her that we were all real and all an important part of who she was/is.
Hi Sylvie, I didn’t include “real mother” because I thought it was a slightly different case. First, the term “real mother” can be applied to both first and adoptive parents, and the list above (with the exception of the first) are names only given to first mothers. Second, this was a list of names I’ve seen adoptive parents call their child’s first mother, and I’ve never run into an adoptive mother who used “real mother” when speaking about their child’s first mother. I think of this terminology as mostly used on the playground by other children when tauntingly asking, “Why don’t you know your ‘real mom?'” or “Why did your ‘real mom’ give you up?” The idea that the “real mom” is the first mother prioritizes biology, when families are made in all sorts of ways.
You can read some more thoughts of mine on “real mother” here: https://redthreadbroken.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/post-mothers-day-thoughts-on-my-real-mother/
Thank you for your reply!
As a mother of loss, I thank you for your thoughtful blog post. The only term that gets to me is BM. I am not a BM a bowel movement. Language matters.
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! I had never seen the term “BM” written out before looking at mostly adoptive parent groups online, but I definitely understand how obnoxious that phrasing is to you. It really doesn’t take that much longer to type out any of the names listed above! And you are far more significant than a BM!
Well said!! As an adoptive mother who is in touch with the Chinese birthfamily of my daughter, I simply refer to her Chinese mother as her mummy, because that is what her Chinese mother is.
How wonderful for your daughter, Evelien, that she has contact with both of her mothers! And happy mother’s day to you!
Thanks for sharing this. As an adoptee, I only use the phrase “birth mother” when I’m talking to other people about adoption. Other than that, I refer to both moms as “mom” and use their location. “My mom in Canada..” or “My mom in Haiti…”
Thanks for reading, Mariette! I think that’s a really simple and accurate distinction to use!
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